Social change threatens the longtime residents of Kalamazoo County, Michigan, but the verities of land and love endure—in this dark but finally hopeful debut.
The action covers a single day, October 9, 1999, with the characters’ memories going back to 1930s, when a tornado racked the area after a local schoolteacher was exiled for sleeping with a hired hand; and, farther, to the 1830s, when white homesteaders began to push the Potawatomi Indians off their native terrain. Rachel Crane, 17, is recently married to 50-year-old George Harland—because she wants his land, she tells herself, though we sense that she reciprocates at least a little of George’s deep yearning for her. Asthmatic 12-year-old David Retakker idolizes George, who’s holding on as a farmer while his neighbors sell out to developers. Subdivisions are springing up, peopled by urban transplants who overtax police officer Tom Parks with complaints about burglar alarms set off by raccoons and about the smell of pig manure. The omniscient narrator doesn’t romanticize the way of life these interlopers are destroying: we see drunkenness, bigotry, and cruelty among the locals as well as neuroses and ignorance among the new arrivals. This is a harsh, unforgiving world: when David accidentally sets fire to George’s barn, the narrator informs us, “There was no reason to think that the fire . . . would give a damn about the flesh and bones of one small boy, even if [he] could have kept at bay for another generation the builders and real estate agents who wanted to divide this wide fertile tract into unproductive rectangles and smother it with foundations for homes, concrete driveways, and choking lawns.” But David does survive, provisionally, and the author has so powerfully conveyed her protagonists’ grit and determination that we close the novel feeling they may yet prevail.
Blunt and bleak, but the vivid, varied cast and palpable sense of connection to the soil give it a stern grandeur.